Jon Shafer’s At The Gates Review

The Civilization Designer is knocking, will you open up?

At The Gates review

The Hagius clan are greedy, impulsive and – right now – my absolute least favourite nomadic clan ever. They had a fight with a clan of cheese-makers and are currently refusing to work. Still, the cheese-making Adalfrieds are the senior clan, and making cheese is doing far more to help the tribe than whatever the lazy, feckless Hagius are doing. For this reason, I decide to rule in favour of the Adalfrieds, demoting the Hagius, stripping them of their role in the tribe and leaving them as simply an angry face on the ‘clans’ screen.

Which is where they sat for the entire rest of the game. They continued to have children, to require more and more food and – crucially – to be so apocalyptically furious that they were unable to work at all. The rest of the game took twelve years. And they did nothing.

Jon Shafer, if you don’t know, was the Lead Designer of Sid Meier’s Civilization V, a game which stole many a night’s sleep from me in years past. Here, the team at Conifer Games has focused on what would be the early stages of a Civilization game. The level of depth and detail is extraordinary, especially for such a small development team. A special mention must be made of the gorgeous watercolour art that fills the screen, including characterful and memorable portraits for each of the clans under your command.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to look too far to spot areas that could have done with just a bit more polish. The reason that the Hagius clan never worked again is because there’s no way to cheer them up again once they’ve lost enough morale. The reason they stuck around is because there’s no way to kick them out. They effectively became dead weight for my entire campaign.

You begin the game as a small, nomadic tribe, usually at a huge disadvantage compared to your neighbours. To grow, you must attract local clans to join you, training them in various professions on an extensive tech tree.

Every clan comes with two traits, some positive and some negative. For example, one clan may have a strong preference for agricultural work, but also a high risk of fighting with anyone they are forced into proximity with – naturally, they should go and become farmers, far away from the main settlement. Others may be peacekeepers, adept at calming those that they live with but useless at physical work. Some, like the Hagius, have two negative traits, and are so awful that they have become the villains of this entire review.

Along with balancing the positive and negative traits of your clans, your other major concern is the land itself. Until you reach a certain technology level, resources such as wheat, coal, honey and sheep will deplete as they are farmed, mined or slaughtered. This forces you to play nomadically, moving your settlement from place to place, gathering resources and learning new professions. You may come across weaker tribes who can be raided for extra supplies or, perhaps, stronger opponents who will do the same to you. The multi-layered decision-making as you explore each procedurally generated world map is unique and shows off At the Gates at its best.

You’ll also need to keep the weather in mind. The further north you are, the more likely it is that the land will freeze over in winter, stopping any food production from your farms for a good few months. Any clans outside of the settlement will find it harder to move in deep snow. If it’s a particularly cold winter, the sea might turn to ice, locking boats in place. Even the regular trade caravan, which allows resources to be bought and sold, doesn’t show up until spring. Fail to stockpile enough food and you may be in serious trouble.

As a fairly peaceful chap, I opted to go for the game’s equivalent of an economic victory in my first playthrough. This involves training five clans as Roman Legion, then sending them to Rome. This allows you, the tribal leader, to become Magister Militum, leader of the Roman army, and is far less exciting than it sounds.

At a certain point, you gain the ability to harvest any resource infinitely. To win, all I had to do was keep mashing ‘skip turn’ until I had enough resources to train the legion, then mash it again until the victory screen popped up. It’s hard to say that this wasn’t a bit of an anticlimax. Even the needs of my allied clans, as interesting as they had been in the early game, could be safely ignored once the victory clock started counting down. You just keep sitting there, Hagius. It’s nearly over.

Far more engaging is the military option – to find and conquer one of the Roman factions by force. This involves not only maintaining a strong economy but using it to mobilize an army. Combat units must navigate difficult terrain, receive enough supply to continue functioning and be able to recover after battle. You’ll need to build your settlement close to the frontlines, as it is only by returning there that a clan can receive healing. All of these are far more interesting problems to solve, making use of the features that make At the Gates unique.

Ultimately, Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is a deep, interesting and gorgeous barbarian-‘em-up for about three-quarters of its runtime, with the quality of the experience varying hugely from there. With time invested to learn the game’s systems, there’s fun to be had in taking the various unlockable tribes to victory. It’s definitely rough around the edges, and there are a few features I’d happily trim, but if you enjoyed Jon’s previous work then the spark that kept me awake all night when Civ V launched is definitely still alive. I hope future updates can fill in a few of the gaps.

[Reviewed on PC]